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Raiders Headed In Right Direction; Have Strong Pieces To Build Upon

The 2015 Oakland Raiders have shown an ability to adjust from week to week, shore up deficiencies as the young season goes on, and adapt as injuries strike. There are many encouraging signs that the team is better than it was a year ago, better than it was a month ago, and better than it was a week ago, however, the Raiders are currently in second place in the AFC West. Although the Raiders sit at 2-3, which is a significantly better place then they were at this time a year ago, there is still work to be done to consistently win football games.

"When you look at the tape, in all three phases, you've seen, I would say, spurts of really good play. You see spurts of drives being put together, really great execution, timing, the rhythm, those things offensively taking place. Special teams-wise, you see some situations where we're really impacting the game," Head Coach Jack Del Rio said. "As a football team, you learn how to do it right first and you learn how to sustain that effort and sustain that production and that's what we're after. We're looking for a more consistent team, a team that will continue to grind through certain situations."

Quarterback Derek Carr says he feels much more comfortable at the controls of the Raiders offense than he did a year ago, and thinks it's the little things that are keeping the team from taking that next step.

"There is no glaring thing. That's where our coaching staff is awesome. You could easily look over little things," Carr said. "We turned on some passes, we turned on some run stuff and said, 'Man, if we had just done that, that might have been a touchdown. If we had just done that, it's a 40-yard gain.' Our coaching staff did a great job. There's no real big glaring thing, it is just refining details and tightening the screws on this. That will help us moving forward."

Carr has shown significant improvement from last year. During the first four games of the 2014 he had completed 102 of 168 pass attempts for 1,016 yards, 8 TDs, and 5 INTs, and averaged 6 yards per attempt. Through the first five games of this season, Carr has completed 103 of 162 pass attempts for 1,171 yards, 8 TDs and just 3 INTs, and is averaging 7.2 yards per attempt.

However, key turnovers at critical points the last two weeks contributed directly to points for the opposition in the past two games that were decided by a total of 8 points. In fact, the Raiders last four games have been decided by a total of 19 points.

The running game has been inconsistent at best, turning in one dominant performance so far this season – 155 yards in a 27-20 win at Cleveland. Again, it's the little things.

"Really it's the timing. You're working on double teams and being able to come off and just some of the little nuances that make the run game go where you do it a little bit better it turns into an 8-yard gain instead of a 3- or 4-yard gain," Coach Del Rio said. "You give your backs opportunities to get through the hole clean and then make the safety miss and it goes bigger than that. It's what you're after, creating the space and the opportunity for our backs, who we think are talented."

Starting running back Latavius Murray, who has rushed for 336 yards on 80 carries, echoed that sentiment.

"Attention to detail at little things, starting with me whether it's alignment or footwork, upfront, just attention to detail to the little things and we can be better together overall once we do that," Murray said.

The Raiders should get a boost in the backfield with the return of running back Taiwan Jones who was back at practice today after missing time with a foot injury. Just the threat of what Jones can do could give defensive coordinators something to think about. Roy Helu Jr., has been given an increased role and fullback Marcel Reece has been utilized effectively out of the backfield in recent weeks.

The defense has shown the ability to overcome adversity, match-up issues and injuries from week to week. Early on, the team had trouble getting to the quarterback and didn't record a sack the first two games. Much was made of this considering the pass rushing talent in the front seven. The Raiders have 10 sacks since then. Rookie defensive lineman Mario Edwards Jr has earned more playing time in recent weeks. He said his position group doesn't worry about the number of sacks, but whether or not they are affecting the quarterback.

"It's just going out there playing and knowing what we're doing, like coach Jethro [Franklin] says, a batted ball is just as good as a sack because you're stopping the momentum," Edwards Jr said. "We just go out there and play, I don't think we really think about [how many sacks]; we just go out there and play within the scheme of the defense and make it happen."

And speaking of scheme, the Raiders had a well-documented difficult time stopping the opposing team's tight end regardless of coverage, matchups or personnel. After allowing 31 catches for 380 yards and 6 TDs, the Raiders defense shut down the Denver Broncos tight ends, not allowing a single reception, with rookie linebacker Neiron Ball playing a significant role covering veteran tight end Owen Daniels much of the game.

At this point last season the Raiders were 0-5 with a 9.6-point margin of defeat. The team is 2-3 this season with an average margin of defeat of 9.3 points. However, if you toss out the season opener, you're talking about an average of 4 points in the two most recent losses.

"We're doing the things you need to do to become a good football team. We're just looking to do them more consistently, more frequently." - Raiders Head Coach Jack Del Rio

One of the areas the defense must improve is third-down, and even fourth down. In the loss to the Chicago Bears, Jay Cutler and company converted third and fourth down plays in critical situations. In the loss to the Broncos, the Raiders were much better on third down. "Defensively we were really good on third down this past ballgame," Coach Del Rio mentioned. The Raiders are ranked 19th in the NFL allowing the opposition to convert 40 percent of their 3rd down chances. The Raiders defense has yet to stop a 4th down conversion attempt, opponents are 5-of-5.

The Raiders must also work to cut down the penalties. The team is 3rd in the NFL in most penalties averaging 8.8 per game. Pre-snap infractions such as false starts and offsides are down the past couple of weeks. These penalties are costing the Raiders just about 62 yards per game.

Head Coach Jack Del Rio mentioned earlier in the week that as the season goes on the Raiders are going to be tough to run on and teams won't be able to throw over the top. The team has gotten much better against the run as the season has progressed, but the pass defense is still giving up some deep passes and long runs after the catch. Against Denver, Peyton Manning connected on passes of 45 and 41 yards. Take those two plays away and the future Hall of Famer has 180 yards on the day instead of 266. The Bears recorded receptions of 35 and 38 yards; the Browns chalked up catches of 40 and 41 yards; the Ravens a 37 and two 38-yarders; and the Bengals receptions of 30 and 31 yards.  – Good stats. I dig it.

But the big Achilles' heel for the Silver and Black has been the turnover at the worst possible moment. In the Raiders last two games, Carr has thrown two interceptions and fumbled, and Murray fumbled leading directly to points for the Bears and Broncos respectively. The most egregious has to be the interception Carr threw against the Broncos that was returned for a touchdown to give Denver an insurmountable 16-7 lead.

"I wouldn't do the exact same thing because of the outcome," Carr said of that play. "But throwing it to that spot, yes. I would have thrown it to Seth [Roberts] again."

At 2-3 the Raiders may not be where they want to be record-wise, but it doesn't seem like, at this stage anyway, that they are too far from turning these last two, hard-fought, close losses into victories. Perhaps Coach Del Rio put it best, "We're doing the things you need to do to become a good football team. We're just looking to do them more consistently, more frequently."

Erase a couple of turnovers and a couple of errant field goal attempts and we could be talking about a 4-1 Raiders team tied for the division lead. Instead, you're looking at a 2-3 team heading into the bye with a critical AFC West matchup in San Diego in a week and a half. Considering this team started last season 0-10, the Raiders are in much better shape at this point than just a short year ago.

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